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Viva Victor

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Morales has a full day planned on Monday before he can leave on his southern campaign swing. At 9 a.m., he's due at Adamson High, a mostly Hispanic inner-city school in Dallas where students are celebrating Mexico's Independence Day. Principal Martin Riojas, who is clearly pleased to have Morales here as a role model for his students, says fewer than half the 400 or so 9th graders who enter each year end up graduating from his school.

Morales, who wanted to be a teacher even as a child and then worked as a library aide to help pay for college, doesn't let him down. "Thanks to education, I'm able to accomplish what people said I could not," Morales tells the students. "I'm able to ar-ti-cu-late. I'm able to a-dapt. So, instead of giving up, instead of blaming the man, blaming someone else, I said, 'How can I get through this problem? How can I get information?' That's what education is."

The auditorium erupts in applause when a senior asks Morales if he will eliminate the state's graduation exit exam. He explains that the test is a state issue and not one that he could take on as a U.S. senator. Instead, he urges the students to make the change themselves by getting organized and voting when they turn 18.

Against the advice of his staff, Morales signs each and every thank-you note to donors—hundreds of them.

Morales makes time after his speech to talk with reporters, even though none of them is from a major local media outlet. Flashing a smile, he explains that he wasn't serious when he suggested to the students that he would run for president after a term as senator. Morales says it's just another example of how he must guard his otherwise open, ebullient personality, especially when reporters are within earshot.

He has learned that lesson the hard way. His reputation as a teacher was on the line earlier this year after being quoted in The Dallas Morning News as saying: "I've had beautiful young girls with major crushes on me. But I stay strong because I'm loyal to my family. Now my mind may be going a hundred miles an hour, but I stay strong."

Morales says his comments were misquoted and taken out of context. But the coverage prompted a small group of local citizens to call for his resignation. Morales suspects Gramm supporters were behind the incident. Mesquite school district officials say the issue is dead, and, in any case, they could not take action against a teacher who is on leave of absence.

By early afternoon, Morales makes his way back to campaign headquarters, a cramped office next to an abandoned Wal-Mart. The red, white, and blue Morales campaign banner over the operation's front door is one of the few signs of life in the half-empty strip mall.

Against the advice of his staff, Morales signs each and every thank-you note to donors--hundreds of them. But people tell him they appreciate the personal touch and extra exclamation marks, so he continues the ritual. This afternoon, he writes for about an hour before sitting down with with a group of television-advertising producers to talk about his commercials, which he wants aired late in the campaign. Just about everywhere he goes, Morales gets asked when he plans to respond to Gramm's TV ads. All he can say is soon--as soon as he can afford them. Then, finally, it's a race to catch his early evening flight to San Antonio, where his south Texas campaign swing officially begins with a fund-raiser that will keep the candidate up until after 1 a.m.

Morales is not the only one working hard. His staff, which includes seven paid workers and maybe a dozen and a half full-time and part-time volunteers, shares a small lobby with two tables and 10 cramped office spaces, only two of which have doors. There is a single bathroom but no hot water.

"This is a cold-water flat," jokes a volunteer. "But we have a microwave if you want your water heated."

The campaign was entirely volunteer-run though the primary and still relies on a growing network of rank-and-file supporters across the state who call themselves the "Viva Victor" campaign club. But after Morales' primary win, it became all too clear that the campaign needed additional help. So the candidate put former volunteers like Huynh on the payroll.

The windowless mail room is run by Bobby Gee, a grandmother who temporarily exchanged caring for her grandchildren for a campaign job. She logs in 10 hours a day, six days a week.

And then there's sign-maker Douglas O'Farrell. He paid for his own gas to follow the Gramm bus on a recent three-day campaign tour through east Texas--with two large Morales signs on the side of his 1979 gold pickup. "I like Morales because he's got guts," O'Farrell says. "I guess he likes me because I've got guts for following the Gramm bus."

Morales also took on Greg Weiner as his campaign director. Weiner, a Texas native, is on loan from U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey's office, where he worked as the Nebraska Democrat's press secretary. This is the 27-year-old's first shot at running a campaign.

Monday was busy, but Tuesday is so jampacked that Morales is sure to fall behind schedule. It's already hot and sticky when his 50-minute flight from San Antonio touches down at 9:40 a.m. in the south Texas town of Harlingen. By noon, temperatures will climb into the high 90s. Mark Flores, a law student on break from Howard University in Washington to help out with the campaign, meets Morales at the airport.

They immediately head west for the 45-mile trip to Mission High School, where Morales is scheduled to speak at 11. (It's one of two schools he'll visit today.) In his speech, the candidate saves some strong words for Gramm, calling his opponent "evil." Afterward, Morales asks reporters if he stepped over the line with his choice of words. Then, almost in his own defense, he adds, "That's just how I feel about him."

Such comments--and Morales has made his share--infuriate Gramm campaign staff, which uses them to portray Morales as a desperate candidate who strays from issues. "I've got to admit that we didn't think Mr. Morales would melt like plastic in the oven," says Gramm spokeswoman Hillrichs. "We didn't expect he'd spill such vitriol on the floor. He sputters and calls us liars and bigots. It's a sad way to end a campaign."

Student reactions to Morales' speech range from supportive to unimpressed. "He's just like any other candidate who makes lots of promises," one student told a reporter from The Washington Post.

But Morales doesn't have time to change the student's mind today. He's off to a Democratic party luncheon 15 miles north in the town of McAllen. The event draws about 100 party devotees who hear Morales explain how he refused to let Democratic spin doctors rewrite his Democratic convention speech. "I told them that if it's not my speech, I'm not going to give it," he declares. "That's the way it's been on my campaign, warts and all. Like it or not, it has to be me."

"If this guy met everyone in Texas, we'd win by acclamation."

Greg Weiner,
Morales' campaign director

Some people might bristle at this brash attitude, but Morales is no regular candidate. Just ask Ann Bergh, a local attorney and former Gramm campaign volunteer who enthusiastically crossed party lines to support Morales. She shouts from the crowd: "I'm a Republican, and I'll vote for you, Victor. Here's a check." A native of El Salvador who has been a U.S. resident since 1980, Bergh says she thinks Morales stands for the little guy but declines to reveal her donation. "More importantly," she adds, "there will be a brand-new Mercedes-Benz driving around with a Morales sign."

Weiner, Morales' campaign director, is convinced that all his candidate would have to do to unseat Gramm is meet lots and lots of people, all 9.8 million of the state's registered voters. "Our job is to get him opportunities to meet people," Weiner says. "If this guy met everyone in Texas, we'd win by acclamation."

But that's a big job in a big state. Texas is the second-largest state in the country, stretching some 820 miles between its widest points. The state is more than three times the size of Kansas, which is no geographic shrimp, covering some 266,000 square miles.

The enormity of the job at hand leads Moore from the University of Texas to predict that Morales has little chance of beating Gramm. "It's going to be lopsided," he says. "Not to rain on his parade, but his surprise was winning the primary. His message just isn't getting out. Right now, it's a non-race."

Other observers say Morales would do better by boning up on issues or spending more time talking about Gramm's connection to big money. "There is a chance for Democrats to beat Phil Gramm, but their candidate has run a completely inept campaign," says Texas A&M's Bond.

Morales arrives at Harlingen High school at 2:30 for his second school visit. He's scheduled to talk to two senior civics classes for 45 minutes. At 4, an hour before his next campaign stop in the border city of Brownsville, he stops for lunch at a fast-food restaurant. He leans over his food like a protective lion. His eyes are bloodshot, and his eyelids are starting to droop. He only slept three hours the night before. Still, he talks patiently between nibbles from his rolled up tortilla and plate of rice. Toss out a subject, and he responds, like a hawk attacking its prey.

He rocked the boat once in a while as a teacher, but he also took innovative steps like arranging for voting booths in his classroom.

Yes, he rocked the boat once in a while as a teacher, but he also took innovative steps like arranging for county election staff to bring voting booths into his classroom. He's also remembered for taking students to the State Capitol in Austin, where they presented a bill that would have allowed 17-year-olds to vote in state primaries if they were going to turn 18 by the November general elections. The bill died in committee.

"I teach in a very Republican area, and I knew kids were going to come up with these one-sided thoughts from their parents," Morales says. "It wasn't my job to tell them their parents were wrong, but it was my job when they brought information that was totally wrong. Then I needed to bring that up as a question--always a question."

Sure enough, some parents complained to school officials about Morales' political orientation. Former principal Frasier says he would relay the complaints to Morales, but that was where the issue would end.

And no, as a child he never dreamed of going into politics. Instead, he credits his students for pushing him to run for Crandall City Council, which was his first real political indoctrination. "They asked me to run," Morales recalls. "I said, 'Yea, right. It's 90 percent Anglo-American. It's conservative Bible Belt. I'm a newcomer. I tell the truth. I don't kiss up. And I'm going to win?'" He also remembers how his students' reactions hit him where it hurts. "They said, 'Mr. Morales, you always say you should try.'"

The last stop of the day is Brownsville, where local Democrats are opening a new headquarters and hosting a 6 p.m. rally. Morales slides back in the passenger seat along the way and looks like he might fall asleep for the 30-minute drive. But then he starts talking about the chance to debate Phil Gramm. The lethargy is gone. The fighting spirit spills out in every gesture.

"I would love it," he says. "He doesn't scare me a bit, never has. Doesn't intimidate me. I want him, though, man to man. He might dazzle with academic jargon on economic theory, but that has nothing to do with the regular workingman--nothing."

But it was Gramm, not Morales, who accepted a Sept. 29 debate that the Dallas media organized. Morales rejected the date. "This is the traditional debate," promised Gramm spokeswoman Hillrichs. "Senator Gramm stands ready to debate and will be at the studio."

As it turned out, the two candidates gave separate 30-minute interviews instead of a live debate. The interviews aired statewide on public broadcasting stations. Morales says he's prepared to debate closer to the election. "I picked October," he says, "so Phil Gramm wouldn't have time to run damage control after I whipped his butt." Gramm says Morales had his chance.

When Morales steps out of the car in Brownsville, the crowd of 60 or so overtakes him. One by one, enthusiastic supporters corner him in a hallway of the new Democratic office or back him against a wall to tell him how they've helped his campaign.

A red convertible, carrying Morales in the back, leads a caravan of a dozen or so cars on a 20-minute, police-escorted trip through town to the park. The park where Morales and the other dignitaries will speak is decorated with red, white, and blue banners, and pro-Democrat signs. Otherwise, there's nothing fancy about the gathering, which the local Texas Young Democrats organized. Most of the audience stands. Others sit on the tailgate of a truck backed into the park for the occasion. Concessions are limited to free popcorn and overly sweet punch.

Despite the modest turnout of about 120 people, organizers say it wasn't a bad show for a Tuesday night. They add that Morales is energizing young voters here along the border with Mexico, where 2,800 people have registered to vote in the past six months.

Morales pleads with the group not to give up on him, and urges them to stay involved. "I'm doing my best. If I falter sometimes--if I make a mistake--remember, I'm doing my best," he tells them. "Remember this, I'm simply trying to help. I don't have to be a U.S. senator to fulfill my life. That's why I tell the truth. What would you do if you send me back home? You send me back to my family and a job I love."

The rally ends with another Macarena line and an invitation from a group of young Democrats to join them for dinner. Morales looks sincerely interested, as if he wants to say yes. Flores, Morales' aide, appears leery of the proposition. After all, they still have to drive 180 miles north to Laredo tonight. And tomorrow, they start all over again.

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